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What is Spinal Cord Infarction?

By Nicole Long
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Spinal cord infarction is a stroke that occurs either within the arteries that supply the spinal cord or in the spinal cord itself. These strokes are caused when the arteries supplying the spinal cord begin to thicken or close due to the development of fatty deposits or disease within the arteries. Signs of this rare condition include back pain, incontinence, and aching or weak legs. Receiving quick treatment can improve the odds of recovering after infarction.

Arteriosclerosis is the term used to describe the closing or thickening of arteries. A specific form of arteriosclerosis called atheromatosis is responsible for spinal cord infarction. Atheromatosis is the term used to describe the accumulation of fat deposits within the arteries. If this occurs in the arteries surrounding the spinal cord, a spinal stroke can happen.

Other possible causes of spinal cord infarction include aortic aneurysm, blood clots, and severe low blood pressure. In addition, a tumor or abscess impinging on one of the arteries supplying the spinal cord with oxygen and blood can lead to infarction. Blockages due to diabetes, meningitis, and lupus also represent a concern when looking at the specific causes of infarction.

Symptoms of spinal cord infarction can develop within minutes of the stroke. For some, symptoms may be delayed up to several hours. Typically, a sharp or burning pain in the back along with pain in the legs develops first. This can progress to paralysis or weakness in the legs. Other signs such as incontinence, loss of reflex, and loss of temperature sensation also develop within minutes or a few hours of the infarction.

Physicians will perform a Magnetic Resonance Imaging test (MRI) to diagnose spinal cord infarction. Typically, sudden back pain in conjunction with other symptoms common with a spinal cord infarction lead physicians to suspect infarction. Other conditions which present similar symptoms include spinal cord myelitis and spinal cord compression. While possible, these other conditions don’t typically present with sudden and severe symptoms.

Recovery from spinal cord infarction begins with treating the symptoms. Physicians may insert a catheter to help alleviate urinary incontinence. Physical therapy may be ordered to help build strength in weakened limbs. Occupational therapy may also be recommended to help patients relearn basic life skills and adjust to any permanent impairment.

During the recovery process, patients will respond differently depending on the severity of infarction. For some, paralysis and the remaining effects of infarction may gradually subside. Other patients experience permanent paralysis, and death is a possibility.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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